“Tatort” – a textbook on language & culture 8/10

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

Why long-running German crime series “Tatort” is a great way to learn German; and a great way to learn about Germany – and Austria and Switzerland.

A detective from western Germany, sent to investigate a murder in what used to be East Germany, finds evidence implicating a right-wing duelling fraternity.

An Austrian detective investigating a brainwashing cult which makes money preying on vulnerable young people finds his daughter targeted.

A Swiss woman working for a controversial assisted suicide programme is murdered.

A serial killer who targets people with medical or psychological problems decides to kill next the detective investigating him – who is, indeed, suicidal.

Trailer for episode 1,001 “Es lebe der Tod” (Long live death) on 20.11.16

The German police procedural Tatort has been running since 1970, and has just celebrated its 50th birthday.  Every Sunday evening at 20.15, a 90-minute episode is aired in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  The series enjoys cult status partly because of its longevity, and the way the long format allows plenty of psychological background.  But it’s also because the series is made by different German (and Swiss and Austrian) regional stations, each with distinctive and occasionally overlapping groups of detectives.  Result: immense variety and numerous different quirky teams of detectives with regional characteristics.  Some episodes are funny; others, dead serious.

Whenever I’m living in a German-speaking country I try to tune in to Tatort at 2015 on a Sunday evening:

(i) to learn German.  I am a lousy linguist but learn well through immersion, and finding something good-quality to watch regularly is invaluable.  Tatort fits that need.  Plus, because it’s on at a predictable time every week I can remember to turn on the telly;

(ii) to understand German-speaking Europe.  Tatort is full of background texture.  Sure, it’s fiction and is arguably no more a manual on Germany or Austria than, say, Midsomer Murders (popular in Germany under the name “Inspector Barnaby”) is an accurate guide to life in England.  But the evolving background and preoccupations of Tatort over time hold up an intriguing if occasionally warped mirror to life in German-speaking Europe.  Hardly any of the detectives, for example, are under 50 and many seem well past retirement age;

(iii) for fun.  Some of the episodes, such as “Long live death” or Es lebe der Tod, first broadcast on 20 November 2016, are gripping psychological thrillers with plenty of nail-biting moments.  Production values are high.

I find the random, unpredictable nature of the episodes endearing and intriguing.  The Keystone Cops quality of many of the police departments depicted is reminiscent of the stupendously hopeless flics in the visually unparalleled French 1981 movie Diva.

Trailer for “Diva”, 1981. 

Come to think of it, even the fantasy-packed Diva included a number of French preoccupations of the moment, including a pet cat called Ayatollah and, of course, police corruption.

Tatort celebrated its 1000th episode on 13 November 2016.  May there be many more.

For: often entertaining way to build knowledge of the German language, and to some extent of Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Against: patchy.  Some episodes are a bit dull or clunky and dialogue is often swallowed or mumbled.  So only 8/10.

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